Over the past five years I’ve written many words on mental illness; its effects, the shadow it’s cast over the last decade of my life. I’ve written about my own years learning to breathe and struggling for air. And yet most of the time I have written in the past tense; I have written of past pain, relapses over and sanity restored. Today, for this Mental Health Awareness Week, I write in the present tense. It hurts; it’s the familiar pain that sits at the base of the neck. In the place where I sing and speak from; there is an ache. At times it feels cruel that the pain sits where my purpose feels fulfilled, but it serves as a reminder that this too shall pass and when it does; I have a job to do. These things are for another day, however. Today is heavy; with unspoken pain and impossibly high demands which argue that I should be better by now. These thoughts are my own; many before have told me that I’m my own worst enemy. Then there are the symptoms that are less voiced. The unwanted and unbidden images which flash through the mind, splitting the darkness like lightning. The overwhelming exhaustion which begs for bed within minutes of consciousness. An anxious foreboding which cannot be quietened. And the less dramatic expressions of brain-wiring gone wrong; the fact that deciding what to wear was a paralysing decision with anxieties crashing into one another in my head. It is not a day for cliched comfort, nor resolution. It’s a Psalm 88 day where “darkness is my closest friend”; a day to look to scarred palms and know that we have a God who weeps with us in our present; and yet cannot help but point to a tearless future.
It is strange to think that 4 years ago I was essentially a happy and content teenager. That’s the thing with depression as a result of circumstances beyond your control – it is a dramatic alteration of your personality and basic outlook. I have close family members who have struggled with much longer-term depression, a kind of permanent setting in the brain that lasts a lifetime. Often, it takes a while to recognise that in someone, but when it is acknowledged, it is clear that it has a lengthy underlying basis. Depression as a result of circumstance is harder to understand. Horrible stuff happens to lots of people, and they largely move on with their lives and live quite normally once it’s over. For me, a series of unfortunate events when I was around 16 have affected me in ways I never thought they would at the time. I thought that by now I would be back to ‘normal’, back to how I was before and not still relying on medication and checks with the doctor every couple of months to assess my progress – generally not promising. I had hoped I would just need a little chemical boost to help me get through the nasty stuff before I got on with living.
That’s not what has happened. This morning, my eyes filled with tears while I was looking at a flying bird. Why? There is no rational explanation for such a response. I was just suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of disconnectedness to the rest of the world, and longing to feel part of it in a way I don’t feel I am, past the wall of numbness that seems to define me a lot of the time. That is, of course, a nonsense – and over the last year or so I have got increasingly frustrated at myself because of my failure to ‘get better’, despite the fact that actually my life is incredibly blessed in many ways. Some things are still hard, but not to any kind of extreme. I think other people find it confusing, too. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why a painful past would actually alter my personality so permanently, and I have had to acknowledge that the likelihood is that I will be ‘sick’ for a long time yet.
As I have mentioned in other posts on my blog, this change has led to my becoming incredibly sensitive and guilt ridden – not only in the choices I make, but in the very fact that I am depressed. I feel ashamed that for some reason I don’t feel that deep joy and peace that we are promised as Christians. I feel angry that God won’t lift this burden from me, and then I feel guilt at my anger. I feel fear for the future and whether this will ever go away. I fear the way it will affect current and future relationships with those around me. Life feels very, very long. Of course, medication (and for a long time counselling) has helped me enormously. I feel entirely ‘functional’ (whatever that means!) the majority of the time, and I do experience wild moments of joy like other people. But I don’t want to be reliant on pills. It’s hard to accept that about myself. I want to be stronger than I am.
Fortunately, Christ is more than sufficient, and his strength is made perfect in my weakness. It’s important to know these things about the one who has longed for us from eternity. A lot of the time, I don’t feel them, because my feelings are damaged. I have to know them instead – to lock them away, treasure them up in my heart and turn to them, running to the arms of one who has known deep grief, rejection and anguish, and accepting his love.
Hannah Malcolm, purposefulpurity.blogspot.com